Giving thanks to my people (and how to find yours)

By Stephanie Wissig

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I like the simple wholesomeness of the holiday–a special meal with friends and family–no presents, no fuss. I like the tradition of spending the day in the kitchen tending to the turkey, prepping sides, and inevitably arguing with my mom and husband about whether the turkey is cooking at the right speed to be ready for dinner.

In 2016, Thanksgiving fell right in the middle of an IVF cycle. We thought we had scheduled things perfectly to make it to my parents’ house for the holiday. But, my ovaries did not get the memo. Two days before Thanksgiving we learned that the egg retrieval would be first thing on “Black Friday”. The trip to my parents was no longer possible.

I called my mom to apologize that we wouldn’t be able to make it this year. I felt terrible about the last-minute cancellation. First of all, we were supposed to bring the turkey and now my mom had to scramble for the main dish! But also, at this point in our journey, we had stopped talking with our families about the treatments.

Early on in our infertility journey, we were quite open with our families about what was going on, and they did everything they knew to be supportive. They’d keep track of key dates and call to hear the results. They’d listen, broken hearted along with us to the news of each failure. They were as afraid and disappointed as we were. But their sadness felt like an additional weight. Their suggestions that we “just needed to relax” and “take care of ourselves” felt like judgment. Their statements that “it would all be okay” sounded like platitudes.

I do remember my typically reticent father saying, “Steph, you’re smart and you’re strong. I know that no matter what, you are going to be okay”. I will always love him for that. It was the perfect form of comfort. But such moments were rare. So, at a certain point, we told everyone that, yes, we were still trying but we wouldn’t be talking about it anymore and please, don’t ask. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach. It is isolating and creates rifts and misunderstandings. But that is what we felt we needed to do at the time.

So, our last-minute cancellation felt particularly uncomfortable. And, to make it worse, I was missing my favorite holiday!

Thankfully, our “tribe” was there for us. We mentioned our holiday situation to friends who lived nearby and had also struggled with infertility, and they jumped in to support us. This British couple, who had just become parents and had never before celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted us for a perfect holiday. It was safe, supportive, fun, and delicious! I think of these friends with gratitude each Thanksgiving.

This couple was part of our “tribe”, a wonderful group of friends that we met through Resolve New England (RNE) support groups. We would regularly get together outside of the support group meetings for summer cookouts or to mark a holiday. Our fertility struggles weren’t the main focus of these events. Rather, our shared experience made it easier to open up, relax, laugh, and have fun despite our struggles. Although we aren’t in touch nearly as much as we should be these days due to life’s new demands, I will always cherish these friends. I can’t imagine getting through our fertility journey without their support.

Attending support groups is one way to build your tribe. If you feel a connection with one of the other attendees, ask for their phone number and don’t be shy about reaching out. It may feel like a bizarre form of “dating” at first, but it quickly becomes very natural.

If you can’t get to a support group or the idea doesn’t sit right with you, here are some other ways you might build a support team.

RNE now offers a virtual support group monthly that “meets” via Skype. Of course, the attendees likely won’t live nearby but that doesn’t mean you can’t virtually connect outside the group!

There are also a variety of private Facebook groups dedicated to supporting those experiencing infertility, and some are specific for a particular geographic region. Most are mediated and have rules to ensure a safe space for all. But keep in mind that there isn’t a live facilitator, and everyone’s infertility journey is unique. Comments or advice from members of these groups may not fit your needs or situation.

For one-on-one support, Fruitful is a wonderful option. This start-up pairs you with a mentor who has been through a similar experience to yours. You sign up for free and complete a short survey about your family building experience. Once you are matched with your volunteer mentor, you connect with them however and whenever works for the two or you.

If you’d prefer to hire a professional for support, you may want to look into fertility coaches. These are people who have experienced infertility and can be there to support you in a variety of ways throughout your journey. Each coach has their own style and approach, so you’ll want to do some research to find one that fits your needs and values. In addition, make sure you check their credentials. Coaching doesn’t require a license the way social work and therapy do, so you’ll want to make sure the person you work with has appropriate training and certification.

Finally, remember that roughly 1 out of 8 women has experienced some degree of infertility. Most likely there are people in your current circle who have been there and “get it”. I know how hard it is to remain open and vulnerable about your experience when so often people say the wrong thing. But, taking a chance might just pay off. I’ve always felt tremendous surprise and gratitude when it did for me.

Stephanie is a patient advocate and coach for those struggling to build a family. She also facilitates RNE’s Cambridge general infertility peer support group. Finally, Stephanie is a non-practicing physician and expert in patient outcomes and experience. 

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